Sunday, April 13, 2008

Academics Anonymous

One of the paradoxes of academics who blog is that we practically grovel for name recognition in all of our official work. You get published in your field and your name is the currency that helps you get a job, keep a job, earn tenure. Scientists tussle over who gets to be lead author on a paper. Yet academics who blog tend to go underground, taking on a pseudonym and often not revealing their blog to their colleagues.

It's not just bloggers who do this. Authors of personal essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely use pseudonyms, too. This practice recently came under fire in the Chronicle with an article by Peter Plagens hyperbolically titled "The Dangers of Anonymity":
I understand why Valerie Plame might want to use a pseudonym, or why Larry Summers probably should have used one, but I don't understand why so many academics, even when writing fluffy little "casuals," think they have to use them. The practice is particularly common in The Chronicle's Careers section, with articles that are neither scandalous personal confessions nor heroic acts of whistle-blowing.
Plagens' argument boils down to his accusation that these authors are, in a word, "chicken." He sees no reason why people can't use their real names while complaining about leaky faucets or airing their fantasies of being a biker chick.

The specific authors Plagens attacked got a chance to respond in the Chronicle. They very reasonably said they didn't want to be Google-able from here to eternity by current students or future employers. They pointed out that academic freedom is pretty damn fragile if you're untenured, and that Plagens' proposed remedies for discrimination - suing your colleagues' asses or getting a shiny new job - are un-amusing and often infeasible. Even barring serious repercussions, these authors are reluctant to poison relations with co-workers who'd dread appearing in an essay lampooning them or their department.

But none of these authors addressed what I see as the biggest barrier to using one's real name: the threat of not being taken seriously. Dr. Crazy hints at this issue in her blog, Reassigned Time:
Sometimes people want to write about the mundane. Tragically, the mundane does not generally accord one professional accolades. While it's true that one might not face profoundly negative repercussions (like not getting tenure) for writing such things under one's "real" name, one also will not receive professional accolades. In a culture of tenure and promotion that depends upon accolades, well, it certainly doesn't make sense to write about the mundane under one's "real" name. Why? Because, well, it makes one seem mundane as opposed to outstanding, which is what tenure committees even at the most lame universities seek.
Yes! And in fact, if you look at the quotation I grabbed from Plagens, you can see from his use of the term "fluffy little 'casuals'" that he doesn't just object to anonymity or pseudonymity, he's sneering at anything less than Deep Serious Intellectual Texts.

Writing about anything personal can quickly be perceived as not just mundame but frivolous. Sure, once you've achieved a reputation through more conventional channels, you may get away with publishing glimpses of your personal life. (I'm thinking of the autobiographical portions of Susan Bordo's wonderful The Male Body or Jane Gallop's Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.) But if you're not already famous, you tread lightly. Academics and network news anchors are about the only remaining professions where "gravitas" seems to be regarded as a basic job qualification. (This is no longer even required of the POTUS, as evidenced by the Current Occupant.)

Academics who blog bump up against the prevalent academic norm that there's no such thing as "spare" time. You ought to be devoted to your job 24/7, living a sort of modern-day monastic life. Which is why parenthood and motherhood are too often regarded as crippling one's chance at a tenured position (whether that's true or not in any particular case). (Note that failure to win tenure doesn't just mean job insecurity; it often means unemployment and a strong chance you'll never work in your field again.)

There's also a gendered dimension to this. Insofar as women are still taken less seriously in many academic disciplines, there's probably more pressure on us not to appear too frivolous. We're also still more closely associated with the body, which means that if we blog about mothering or sex or anything else with a major corporeal dimension, we may play into stereotypes and again provide fodder for those colleagues who still have (usually unarticulated) problems seeing women as their equals. We're also too quickly presumed to be mired in our personal lives.

All of this can vary, depending partly on your discipline. Women remain highly marginal in many of the sciences, but indefinable bullshit like gravitas seems to matter less there. In the humanities, women are quite prevalent but a certain tweedy seriousness plays more of a role than in the sciences. (Picture the historians who appear on TV as talking heads. Doris Kearns Goodwin is the only female, and she sure does the tweedy thing.) In the program where I currently teach, women's studies, none of these intangibles seem to be very important. I'd have no problem with my colleagues reading my blog; they're wonderful and real people. But we're also marginal to the rest of the university.

Being pseudonymous can offer some nice positive benefits, too, as the Chronicle commentators point out. When you detach from your real-world identity, what you write can more easily be read as universal. You can develop a different voice than you might use in your other writing projects. You can explore personal topics frankly. You tell the truth, as you see it, without embarrassing innocent bystanders. All of these benefits apply to pseudonymous academic bloggers, too, as Profgrrrrl has thoughtfully explored.

Is this irresponsible, much less "dangerous," as Plagens suggests? Dr. Crazy notes that there's a big difference between pseudonymity and anonymity.
Pseudonymity ... is not about being untraceable but rather about taking on a traceable identity that is distinct from one's legal identity, or one's identity at birth. It's about taking on a "pen name," a name that people can follow, and by extension a way of thinking that people can follow.
If you use a pseudonym, you develop a consistent persona over time. In fact, it'd be really hard to do otherwise. You also feel a sense of responsibility to your readers. As I learned last week when I got attacked by Clintonista partisans for blogging on the O'Bleness story, I felt no less beholden to getting it right just because I wasn't using my legal name. I carefully re-examined what I'd written, and precisely that self-scrutiny let me feel confident that I hadn't distorted the truth insofar as it could be known from a sparse set of facts.

I was also grateful for pseudonymity when I started getting hateful comments. Someone who really wanted to track me down could do it, but I haven't left a trail of bread crumbs leading straight to me. If there's any danger lurking out there, it's not from "chicken" grad students and professors airing their dreams and complaints under an assumed name; it's from crazies and stalkers who'd like to put the chill on those of us they call eggheads, surrender monkeys, and feminazis. In this climate, I'm happy to share a name with the world's yummiest cherry tomato.

Gratuitous crocus photo from my garden, taken about a week ago.


J.B. Kochanie said...


I've been lurking here, quietly enjoying your thoughtful posts and photographs. It's time to make my presence known. ;-)

Congratulations on your first troll! I am in complete agreement with your moderation policy, i.e., I'll delete liberally, if I must. Appropriate to put the warning under Grey Kitty's picture. Perhaps this is an opportune time to announce Grey Kitty's appointment as Director of Scat, overseeing the cyber-litterbox.

I think that the issue of online anonymity vs. transparency is a critical one. While I admire bloggers who blog eponymously, such as Amber Rhea, I am aware how invasive that practice can be. It takes a great deal of courage to blog under one's own name and to blog about stigmatized topics such as sex.

However, we have responsibilities to family and loved ones and the loss of a job or professional status for conduct deemed unprofessional, such as sex blogging, is a real possibility for many. And yes, stalkers do exist and can disrupt one's sense of safety. So I cannot find fault with anyone who blogs anonymously, as I do.

If you use a pseudonym, you develop a consistent persona over time. In fact, it'd be really hard to do otherwise. You also feel a sense of responsibility to your readers.

I think that is a very important distinction between blogging anonymously with the intent to deceive and blogging under a pen name for your own protection. I think it was A in France who made the observation that in real life most bloggers do not differ from their online personae. You may attribute a statement to a "friend" rather than to your spouse, but that change does not alter the underlying truth of what you are trying to convey.

As for the lack of professionalism associated with writing about the mundane, the quotidian -- well, that's our culture's devaluing of the body and the tasks associated with it.

However, if we don't challenge the status quo and write openly about sex, how will the stigma ever be removed?

Thank you for this very thoughtful post.

Sungold said...

Kochanie, I'm glad you're here, and I appreciate your piping up. I like the idea of GK monitoring the cyber-litterbox. In her lifetime, she suffered greatly from indigestion (she had a little hairball issue) so she's well qualified. :-)

I agree that Amber has a lot of guts. I also think it makes her pretty vulnerable in ways that I know I wouldn't want to take on. What I write is a whole lot less centered on sex than what she does - or you do - and yet I'm glad not to have my name out there for all and sundry.

The nice thing about pseudonymity is that you can "come out" to individuals whenever it's comfortable but still be protected from the trolls and stalkers.

I do think pseudonymity sometimes lets people experiment with tweaking their identities. Certainly people might be bolder online, even if what they're expressing is still absolutely in line with their core values. People get a lot more naked, literally and figuratively. But deviating from one's basic ideas and values would be hard to maintain in a consistent and credible way, so I have to agree with you and A in France.

I do something similar in the classroom sometimes when I relate an anecdote. I might attribute it to someone other than its originator. Or I'll change an unimportant detail or two for the sake of people's privacy. I encourage students to do the same.

And finally, you are so right that everything related to the body is devalued. It's not just sex, it's everything corporeal - except for sports, I suppose. My own work deals with the history of bodies, which is a growing research field, but there are also plenty of historians who think it should remain a marginal topic.

Thanks for your thoughtful words, as always, Kochanie.